The Handmaid’s Tale

Cover image for The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwoodby Margaret Atwood

ISBN 0-449-21260-2

“I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, my eyes closed, and the name floats behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.”

Offred had a real name, once. Not this bastard name that combines a possessive piece of grammar with the name of the man to whom she currently belongs. In the Republic of Gilead, formerly part of the United States, she has been relegated to the taxing role of Handmaid, at once revered and entrapped by the fact that she possesses a rare set of working ovaries in an age of reproductive decline. Her long and tedious days are broken up only by a walk to the shops, since most forms of entertainment, and especially reading, are now forbidden to women. Most of her nights are spent either trying not to remember or trying not to forget her life before, when she had a husband, and a daughter, a job and her own bank account. Now, once a month, she must lie with the Commander, under the eyes of his dour wife, Serena Joy, and hope that he makes her pregnant before her time runs out.

The Handmaid’s Tale opens on a simple scene that is at once familiar and dystopian. Women sleep in rows of cots in what is recognizably a high school gymnasium with a wooden floor and painted with lines for various sports. But something is also obviously terribly wrong; guards patrol the aisles, and the women are forbidden from speaking to one another, or exchanging names. The opening scene is a great encapsulation of the subtle genius of The Handmaid’s Tale; there are recognizable elements of our own world in there, gone horribly awry. In Atwood’s own words, “there isn’t anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country, or for which actual supporting documentation is not already available.” Dystopian fiction has risen to new heights in recent years, but Margaret Atwood was already scaling those peaks three decades ago.

A striking feature of the story is the way the women are made complicit in the regime and turned against one another. This is accomplished through stratification, and creating rivalry between the different classes of women. The Aunts, often older, infertile women, have saved themselves from work camps by becoming enforcers of the regime, training the younger women to dutifully accept their new status. Women knowns as Marthas are relegated to the role of household servants for the Commanders, and their Wives. The Wives ostensibly have the highest social standing, but they are resentful of the Handmaids, who are charged with giving their husbands sons where the Wives have failed. Econowives in the lower social classes are simply expected to perform all three functions, if they can. The women are kept wary of one another, largely unable to form valuable alliances due the suspicion created by the fact that anyone could be working for the Eyes. If the characters are a bit distant and unknowable, it is this separation that makes them so.

The events of The Handmaid’s Tale are largely quotidian, occasionally broken up by darker events, like a Salvaging, or a visit to the Wall where traitors’ bodies are displayed. Matters also become more fraught in Offred’s household when her Commander starts ordering her to pay him extra night time visits outside the confines of the Ceremony, and out from under Serena Joy’s watchful eye. But if most of The Handmaid’s Tale is very minute and day-to-day, the epilogue that follows it is anything but. Entitled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood zooms out to the year 2195. This epilogue is styled like a transcript from an academic conference, in which a Professor from the University of Cambridge chronicles the discovery and attempted authentication of the audiotapes that have come to be known as The Handmaid’s Tale.

In addition to providing a more distant perspective, the Historical Notes throw a new light on Atwood’s informal narrative style; she dispenses with quotation marks, ruminates on the storytelling process, and has Offred admit when she has conflated events or summarized a conversation to the best of her recollection. Briefly, Offred even assumes the voice of Moira, an escaped Handmaid whose bravery she envies. Revelations about Offred’s past, and how she lost her rights and became a Handmaid, are released in painful dribs and drabs throughout the text, suspended whenever she cannot bear to talk of it anymore. This fragmentation, which has caused some readers, understandably, to complain that it impeded their ability to sink into the narrative, suddenly makes more stylistic sense in light of this belatedly revealed conceit. The Historical Notes also reveal that the academics have had to edit Offred’s tale into their best guess at its original order, since the tapes on which she recorded her autobiography were not numbered. We have read a story about a woman who has been deprived of the right to read and write, only to discover that she has not written her story at all, but imparted it through the spoken word.

Now thirty years old, The Handmaid’s Tale is most often criticized for failing to come to fruition, which is rather ironic given that Atwood wrote it by using elements of history and current events. However, this simplistic view rather misses the point of speculative fiction, the writing of which does not require a crystal ball, a scrying glass, or other supernatural divination of the future. A dark future merely needs to be recognizable enough to send a chill down your spine. Neither 1984 nor Brave New World have come precisely to pass either, and The Handmaid’s Tale stands alongside these as a classic example of the dystopian genre.

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